It’s Science!

I’m a huge fan of the TV show Mythbusters, and that fact that this is their last season is a loss for all of us, as the show has got a number of people, both young and old, interested in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Being a tech geek and a Mechanical Engineer by education, their method of proving or disproving a myth by breaking it up into its parts and testing them in ascending scales just shows how using a classical approach to problem solving can take a problem of any size and make it manageable to solve.For those of you who missed last week’s episode, the team took on a classic demonstration from science class: take a metal container, like a five gallon can, pour some boiling water in it, and seal the vessel. As the vessel cools (either naturally or with some help), a vacuum forms in the can, and the can collapses. Neat trick in small scale, but what happens if your can is a 30,000 gallon railroad tank car?Needless to say, they did not start right off with the tank car. In fact, they started small, and then worked their way up through a number of different scale situations. In each of the small scale tests, the can collapsed, in some cases spectacularly. With the myth “proved” in small scale, all that was left was to go for the real rail car.And with a real rail car they did do their tests. It was a T-111 tank car, a single wall steel car of the type that carries all sorts of liquids around this country, and they set up their test the same way they did with the smaller ones, except this time they instrumented the car to get a better and safer view of what was going on, from a safe distance. The first test recreated the small scale tests, and while they were able to pull almost a complete vacuum in the car, nothing happened. In fact, when they substituted their new looking car for one that was really rough around the edges and repeated the test, nothing happened. It took them dropping a concrete block on the rough car to induce a major defect (nothing that we would allow to be used on a railroad) and then pulling almost a complete vacuum to get the car to collapse, and when it did, it was flat.In the end, the myth was busted. Why was it busted, if they were able to get the car to collapse? Once again, we go back to the process. It took so much additional damage and vacuum to cause the car to crumple that it would be almost impossible to get those conditions to occur in real life. For us, as railroaders, this is a good thing. It tells me that it takes a LOT of force to damage or breach a car, and that maybe some of the people who have concerns about cars being stored near them should take a deep breath. A car just sitting there isn’t going to breach or jump off the tracks on its own. It will take a huge act, admittedly one that will have other consequences to make a car add its contents to an event.---By Steve Friedland
steven-fb.jpgSteve Friedland is a well-known leader in the short line industry who has devoted more than two decades to railroading. At the Morristown & Erie Railway, a 42-mile New Jersey short line, he worked in all areas of the railroad, including track, mechanical, signals, and operations. In 1999, he founded Short Line Data Systems, a provider of railroad EDI and dispatching software, AEI hardware, and management consulting to the short line industry. He currently serves as the ASLRRA representative to the AAR's Wireless Communications Committee and is chairman of the joint AAR-ASLRRA Short Line Information Improvement Committee. He also is a member of the ASLRRA's board of directors.